Halloween Havoc!: Alfred Hitchcock’s THE BIRDS (Universal 1963)

Many years ago, back in the 80’s I believe, I spent a week on Martha’s Vineyard. It was early in the morning on a gorgeous summer day, and as my friend was still crashed from the previous evening’s debauchery, I decided to walk down to the beach and catch some rays. I strolled past a particularly marshy stretch when, out of nowhere, a seagull buzzed by my head. Then another. And another. And soon there were about ten of the nasty flying rats swooping down at me, screeching and dive-bombing toward my long-haired dome (this was back when I actually had hair!). I ducked and dodged, yelling and snapping my beach towel at the airborne devils, and ran as fast as I could away from the area, scared to death one of these buzzards was going to peck my eyeballs out! It was like something straight out of Alfred Hitchcock’s  1963  masterpiece of terror THE BIRDS!

THE BIRDS was Hitchcock’s follow-up to 1960’s PSYCHO, his first true entry into the horror genre. While that film deals with an easily explained (though very complicated) deranged man, THE BIRDS gives no clarification as to why the critters rebel against mankind. They have no motive, they just do, making their actions all the more terrifying. Birds have always been an omen of portending doom in Hitchcock films, from 1929’s BLACKMAIL all the way to the taxidermy of Norman Bates, but here The Master of Suspense takes it to the next level – birds as agents of chaos.

The film starts normally enough, as lawyer Mitch Brenner and newspaper heiress Melanie Daniels “meet cute” in a San Francisco pet store (where Hitch has his cameo as a man walking his dogs). Melanie, intrigued by the handsome Mitch, decides to follow him to Bodega Bay, an idyllic coastal town where he lives with his widowed mother and younger sister. The blonde practical joker purchases a pair of love birds, and sneaks into Mitch’s house, leaving them behind as a present for his sister Cathy. While observing his reaction from her motor boat, Melanie gets bashed in the head by an errant gull. It’s no mere accident, just the first sign of things to come.

The birds begin their attacks in earnest at Cathy’s outdoor birthday party, flocks and flocks of them reigning down on the innocent children. Hitchcock ratchets things up from there, as the audience never knows when the creatures will strike next. They fly down the chimney at the Brenner’s home, terrorizing them. Later, Mrs. Brenner discovers her neighbor’s dead body, his eyes horribly pecked out. The scene at the schoolhouse is one of the most iconic in both the Hitchcock and horror canons: as Melanie sits outside the school, the birds begin to gather, first one, then another, perching on the monkey bars and swing set, as the children sing an innocent song in class. Melanie and teacher Annie Heyworth, Mitch’s ex-lover, line up the kids, telling them we’re having a fire drill, marching them out slowly. The birds then attack, and the children make a mad dash for safety, the birds pecking and clawing at them with frenzied abandon, the children screaming as their flesh is rended from their arms and faces.

Melanie and Cathy make it to the safety of the local restaurant, where we get some relief from the tension as some minor characters (an ornithology expert, a fisherman, and a souse) expound on what the hell is going on. Bodega Bay is now under siege, and Mitch boards up the family homestead to keep Melanie and his family safe. Outside, we hear the shrieks and caws of the birds, hundreds of them, as they try to break through the wood. After everyone else falls asleep, Melanie hears something upstairs (Hitchcock’s famous staircase motif is revisited). Opening the door to a bedroom, she recoils in horror as the birds have broken through the ceiling. Trapped now, Melanie is viciously attacked by the demonic birds, as they mercilessly bite and rip at her. Mitch awakens to pull her out of this assault, but it’s too late – the woman is now in total shock from her frightening ordeal.

There is no musical soundtrack in THE BIRDS. Instead, an electronic early synthesizer is used to create the sounds of the avian monsters, to chilling effect (though composer Bernard Herrman is credited as ‘sound consultant’). Sound plays an important role in conveying the sense of dread and fear, with technicians Remi Glassman, William Russell, Oskar Sala, and Waldon Watson all contributing. The special effects hold up surprisingly well for a film made over fifty years ago, thanks in large part to the contributions of Disney animator Ub Iwerks and matte artist Albert Whitlock . DP Robert Surtees , working on his 11th of 12 movies with Hitchcock, delivers his usual fine job. The eerie blending of both sound and visual effects combine to raise the terror quotient to heights never matched before, and rarely since, despite all the technological advances.

The cast is well-chosen, with stalwart Rod Taylor as Mitch and former model Tippi Hedren making her film debut as Melanie (Miss Hedren named her child after her character in THE BIRDS, actress Melanie Griffith). Jessica Tandy is outstanding as Mitch’s domineering yet sympathetic mother, Veronica Cartwright (later of INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS and ALIEN) is little sister Cathy, and Suzanne Pleshette, always a welcome presence, plays Annie. Familiar Faces in support include Malcom Atterbury, Richard Deacon, Ethel Griffies (as the bird expert – she even looks like one!), Charles MacGraw (the fisherman), Ruth McDevitt, Dal McKennon, William Quinn, Karl Swenson (the drunken doomsayer), and Doodles Weaver. Look for little Suzanne Cupito, later known as Morgan Brittany, as one of the frightened children.

Hicthcock directed from a script by Evan Hunter, better known by his pen name Ed McBain (of the ’87th Precinct’ novels), adapting his screenplay from a story by Daphne DuMaurier, whose novel REBECCA inspired Hitch’s first American film. THE BIRDS is a true classic of the horror genre, dealing as it does with the unexpected, the unknown, the unexplainable. After you finish watching it, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing it couldn’t possibly happen. Or could it? Don’t forget what happened to me on Martha’s Vineyard all those years ago. As Scotty said in Howard Hawks’ THE THING  , “Watch the skies! Everywhere! Keep looking!”. And have a frightfully Happy Halloween!

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Halloween Havoc! Extra: Vincent Price Does “The Monster Mash”

In what’s become an annual tradition here at Cracked Rear Viewer, it’s time for Halloween season’s theme song, “The Monster Mash” ! This time around, Vincent Price and his fiends, including fellow horror icon John Carradine , perform the hit from 1981’s cult movie THE MONSTER CLUB, featuring a scary soliloquy by Vincent on the monsters known as “humes”! Without further ado, here’s this year’s “Monster Mash”! And Happy Halloween, boys and ghouls!:

Halloween Havoc!: THE SMILING GHOST (Warner Brothers 1941)

A mysterious killer stalks his prey in an old, dark house! Sound familiar? Sure, the formula has been around since Lon Chaney Sr. first crept his way through 1925’s THE MONSTER, and was perfected in the 1927 horror comedy THE CAT AND THE CANARY. THE SMILING GHOST, a 1941 variation on the venerable theme, doesn’t add anything new to the genre, but it’s a pleasant enough diversion with a solid cast courtesy of the Warner Brothers Stock Company of contract players and a swift 71-minute running time.

Lucky Downing, a somewhat dimwitted chemical engineer heavily in debt to his creditors, answers a newspaper ad for a male willing to do “anything legal’ for a thousand bucks. Rich Mrs. Bentley explains the job is to get engaged to her granddaughter, Elinor Bentley Fairchild, for a month. Smelling easy money, and a way out of the hole, Lucky and his best friend/valet Clarence take a train to the countryside to meet Elinor.

What Mrs. Bentley hasn’t explained to Lucky is that Elinor is the infamous “Kiss of Death Girl”, whose three previous fiances have all met with disaster. The first drowned and the third was bitten by a cobra “on the 18th floor of a Boston hotel”. The second, Paul Myron, is in an iron lung due to a car accident, and is working with plucky girl reporter (is there any other kind in these films?) Lil Barstow to prove victim #1 is the undead “Smiling Ghost”. Elinor’s family is your basic motley crew of eccentrics, including Great-Uncle Ames, a collector of shrunken heads who develops an interest in Clarence!

There’s sliding panels, secret passageways, and a masked killer roaming around, all the ingredients necessary for “old, dark house” fun. The script by Kenneth Garrett and Stuart Palmer is geared more towards humor than horror, though there’s a few atmospheric scenes staged by director Lewis Seiler , including one in a fog-shrouded graveyard. There’s also an innovative scene with Paul Myron in his iron lung talking to Lucky and Lil , his face reflected in the mirror,  well shot by DP Arthur L. Todd, whose career stretched from 1917 until his death in 1942.

Wayne Morris (KID GALAHAD, BROTHER RAT) does his good-natured lug act as Lucky, and he’s delightful. Ingenue Alexis Smith (THE HORN BLOWS AT MIDNIGHT , THE TWO MRS. CARROLLS) has one of her earliest credited roles as Elinor. Brenda Marshall (THE SEA HAWK, THE CONSTANT NYMPH) gets the plucky reporter part, David Bruce (THE MAD GHOUL , LADY ON A TRAIN) is Paul, Lee Patrick (THE MALTESE FALCON, GEORGE WASHINGTON SLEPT HERE) is a cousin, Charles Halton (TO BE OR NOT TO BE, IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) is the creepy Grand-Uncle, and brawny Alan Hale Sr. (ROBIN HOOD’s Little John) gets to show off his comic talents as Norton the butler.

Wonderful Willie Best plays Clarence, whose relationship with Lucky is more as a pal than a servant. Mr. Best was a black comedian who no less than Bob Hope once called “the greatest actor I know”. Willie’s from the Mantan Moreland school of acting, meaning he was usually typecast as a superstitious, “feets don’t fail me now” stereotype, and this film’s no different. However, Best’s comic timing was impeccable, and he and Morris make a great duo. Unfortunately billed as “Sleep’n’Eat” early in his career, the actor brightened many a 30’s & 40’s film with his talent. Equally unfortunate, a 1951 drug bust made him unemployable. Gale Storm , who knew Willie from her Monogram days, gave him steady work as Charlie the elevator operator in her sitcom MY LITTLE MARGIE, and had nothing but good things to say about his professionalism. Ostracized by the black community during the civil rights movement, forgotten by Hollywood, and reduced to making his living selling weed and women, Willie Best, one of Hollywood’s first recognizable black stars, died of cancer in 1962 at the young age of 45.

THE SMILING GHOST is silly fun, and won’t scare anyone under the age of ten, just an  “old, dark house” mystery done by some seasoned pros that knew their business when it came to making quick ‘B’ movies. Sometimes I like these ”second features” better than the more prestigious films produced at the time. This one’s definitely worth a look.

 

Halloween Havoc!: THEM! (Warner Brothers 1954)

The iconic, bloodcurdling scream of little Sandy Descher heralds the arrival of THEM!, the first and best of the 50’s “Big Bug” atomic thrillers. Warner Brothers had one of their biggest hits of 1954 with this sci-fi shocker, putting it up there with Cukor’s A STAR IS BORN, Hitchcock’s DIAL M FOR MURDER, and Wellman’s THE HIGH AND THE MIGHTY as their highest-grossing films of the year. Not bad company for director Gordon Douglas , previously known for his work with Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy! THEM! was also Oscar nominated that year for its special effects (and should’ve been for Bronislaw Kaper’s terrific score).

The movie begins with the look and feel of a noir mystery courtesy of DP Sidney Hickox’s (DARK PASSAGE, THE BIG SLEEP  , WHITE HEAT) brooding shadows and sandstorm-battered landscape. New Mexico policemen Ben Peterson and Ed Blackburn come across a little girl wandering the desert highway near Alamogordo, a eyes locked in a blank, faraway stare. Further investigation takes the pair to a trailer that’s been trashed, sugar cubes scattered around, and some mysterious paw prints like those of a wild animal. Peterson finds a piece of her doll’s head and a tear from her robe, indicating this is where she was before becoming catatonic. While being loaded in an ambulance, an eerie, high-pitched noise wakes her, her eyes widening with fright, unnoticed by the cop and the medic.

Ben and Ed stop at Gramps’ General Store to find a similar scene – the place has been violently ransacked, sugar cubes strewn about. This time they find a body, the old man with a look of sheer horror on his face. Peterson leaves the scene, Blackburn staying behind to secure it, when he hears that eerie, high-pitched noise. He goes outside, gun drawn, as the noise grows louder. Offscreen we hear gunshots, followed by the cop’s death throes.

Cut to police headquarters, as Peterson is being consoled for the loss of his partner. The cops believe a homicidal maniac may be on the loose, and FBI agent Robert Graham has called in. It seems the little girl’s dad was an agent on vacation. The coroner’s report states Gramps’ mutilated body contained “enough formic acid to kill twenty men”. The Department of Agriculture sends eminent myrmecologists (ant experts) Dr. Medord and his daughter Pat, and when the elder scientist gives the girl a whiff of formic acid, she wakens in terror, screaming, “THEM! THEM! THEM!”.

Back in the desert, Medford finds a footprint despite the raging sandstorm, estimating it’s owner must be “over eight feet”, yet not ready to tell Ben or Bob what exactly his theory is. They soon find out as Pat is menaced by a giant ant, and both lawmen shoot in vain until Medford instructs them to aim for the creature’s antennae, stopping the big bug in its tracks. Medford’s suspicions have now been confirmed, the ant was “probably created by lingering radiation from the first atomic bomb”, tested right there in the Alamogordo desert!

Ben, Bob, and the Medfords take to the skies to look for more, and find a huge anthill the size of a mesa! There’s an entire colony of the mutated bugs down there, and a plan is devised to blast the opening with bazooka fire at high noon, then drop cyanide down the hole to destroy the beasts. When the smoke and gas clear, Ben, Bob, and Pat explore the strange underground chambers, littered with the carcasses of giant dead ants. A few survivors are blasted with flame throwers, and the trio continue to the queen’s chamber. They torch all the eggs, yet discover two have hatched already, two winged queens who’ve left the colony and taken flight…

Unlike subsequent “Big Bug” epics, THEM! boasts a talented cast of actors that make the audience buy into the outlandish premise. James Whitmore lends his blue-collar believability to the part of cop Ben Peterson, risking both life and limb in the name of service. Big James Arness , former alien in THE THING and future Marshal Dillon of TV’s GUNSMOKE, is the brawny FBI agent. Joan Weldon plays Pat, Arness’s love interest (oh, those 50’s lady scientists!).  Oscar winner Edmund Gwenn is perfectly cast as the somewhat scatterbrained but knowledgable scientist Medford. Rounding out the cast are a plethora of Familiar Faces in smaller roles: John Beradino, Willis Bouchey, Richard Deacon, Ann Doran, Olin Howlin, Sean McClory, Jan Merlin, Leonard Nimoy, Fess Parker, William Schallert, Onslow Stevens, Dub Taylor, Dick Wessel, Harry Wilson, and Dick York.

I’ve deliberately left out any ending spoilers for those among you who haven’t seen this sci-fi/horror classic. Suffice it to say, there’s lots more to the story, and if I’ve gained you’re interest I urge you to add THEM! to your Halloween watch list. The rest of you have, like me, probably enjoyed the film more than once, and you already know it’s worth watching again!

Halloween Havoc!: ALIAS NICK BEAL (Paramount 1949)

The worlds of supernatural horror and film noir collided to great effect in ALIAS NICK BEAL, John Farrow’s 1949 updated take on the Faust legend. The film wasn’t seen for decades due to legal complications, but last August the good folks at TCM broadcast it for the first time. I have been wanting to see this one for years, and I wasn’t disappointed! It’s loaded with dark atmosphere, a taut screenplay by hardboiled writer/noir vet Jonathan Latimer , and a cast of pros led by a ‘devilish’ turn from Ray Milland as Nick Beal.

The Faust character this time around is Joseph Foster, played by veteran Thomas Mitchell . Foster is an honest, crusading DA with political ambitions. When he says aloud he’d “give my soul” to convict racketeer Hanson, Foster receives a message to meet a man who claims he can help. Summoned to a seedy tavern on the fog-shrouded waterfront, he meets the dapper Nick Beal, who describes Foster as an “incorruptible enemy of the legions of evil”, with just a hint of disdain. Beal leads the DA to Hanson’s hidden ledger, containing proof of the gangster’s various crimes. While Foster looks it over, Beal mysteriously vanishes into the night.

Soon Foster’s party bosses offer him the governorship, and up pops Beal again. Foster’s wife warns him to stay away from the stranger, so Beal recruits a down-on-her-luck bar girl named Donna Allen to do his bidding. The Reverend Dr. Garfield, an ally of Foster’s, feels he’s seen Nick somewhere before, but can’t quite place him (Garfield: “Did anyone ever paint your portrait?” Beal: “Yes, Rembrandt in 1665”). Beal’s machinations, including a bargain with corrupt political boss Faulkner, put Foster in the governor’s chair, causing the party to disown the formerly incorruptible DA, accusing him of “misuse of unauthorized campaign funds”. Beal demands the office of Keeper of the State Seal, Faulkner demands his cronies get choice appointments, and the beleaguered Foster confesses all in his inauguration speech, resigning from the post. Politically and financially ruined, his marriage in a shambles, Foster is at his lowest ebb when Beal decides to cash in on their bargain, accompanying him to “los isla de las almos perditas”… Spanish for the island of lost souls!! Can Joe Foster be saved??

Ray Milland was one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, moving from romantic leading man to two-fisted hero to despicable villain with the greatest of ease. His Nick Beal is suave and sophisticated, cunning and cruel, and his sinister malevolence permeates every scene. He scares the hell out of Donna, manipulating a word-for-word dialog between her and Foster before it even happens. His whistling though the chiaroscuro shadows and fog bound wharf of DP Lionel Linden’s cinematography is eerie to behold, and Milland makes for one hell of an emissary of evil.

Thomas Mitchell as Foster is the film’s main focus, and the actor was a master of eliciting sympathy from an audience, as he proved time and again in classic movies from STAGECOACH  to IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE. His wife is played by Geraldine Wall, usually relegated to uncredited or bit parts, and she shows she could’ve done so much more if given half a chance. George Macready , of all people, plays the good Rev. Garfield, who stumbles on to the truth about Beal. This is probably my favorite performance by actress Audrey Totter , who plays the prostitute Donna, trapped in Beal’s dark web. Her early scenes as the hardcore hooker stand in sharp contrast to what happens when Beal glams her up and sics her on Foster, and her fear of the demonic Beal is palpable. Totter, one of noir’s best bad girls, really gets to shine in this part!

A plethora of Familiar Faces parade across the screen on the sides of both good and evil. Among them you’ll recognize Henry O’Neill as Judge Hobson, Fred Clark as the crooked boss Faulkner, Daryl Hickman as a teen involved with Foster’s Boys Club, and Danny Borzage, King Donovan , the ubiquitous Bess Flowers , Maxine Gates, Theresa Harris , Percy Helton, Nestor Paiva, Tim Ryan, Douglas Spencer, and Phil Van Zandt. ALIAS NICK BEAL works on so many levels, as fantasy, as film noir, as a political expose’, and as dark horror, and reminded me so much of the works of Val Lewton. With that excellent, powerhouse cast and timeless story, it’s a classic that will fit well into your Halloween viewing season, but can be enjoyed any time of year.

Halloween Havoc! Extra: The CREEPY Artwork of Frank Frazetta

Illustrator Frank Frazetta (1923-2010) is well known among fans for his brilliant artwork in the fantasy/horror/sci-fi genres, especially his covers for the paperback reissues of CONAN THE BARBARIAN in the 60’s. Frazetta did a lot of covers for Warren Publications’ black and white horror comic line, and here is a gallery of his work from the covers of CREEPY:

Halloween Havoc!: MAN MADE MONSTER (Universal 1941)

Lon Chaney Jr.  made his first foray into Universal Horror with MAN MADE MONSTER, the movie that led to his studio contract and immortality with THE WOLF MAN . Both films were directed by George Waggner, who also wrote the script here under the pseudonym Joseph West. Lon’s large and in charge as the electrical monster, but top billing and acting honors go to Hollywood’s maddest of mad doctors, the great Lionel Atwill .

A bus crashes into high tension wires on a rain slicked highway, leaving all aboard dead save one. He’s Dan McCormick, a carny performer known as ‘Dynamo Dan, The Electric Man’. His seeming imperviousness to electricity piques the interest of scientist Professor Lawrence, who invites the jovial Dan to stay with him and his young niece June. Lawrence wants to run some experimental tests on Dan, but when he leaves for a medical convention his assistant Dr. Rigas takes control.

Using Dan as a guinea pig to prove his theories, Rigas gives Dan massive doses of electricity, causing him to become dependent on the daily jolts. Rigas’s final treatment gives Dan an eerie (superimposed) glow, as well as superhuman strength, forcing him to don a rubber suit to contain the electric power coursing through his veins. Lawrence returns to this, and the mad Dr. Rigas rails about creating “the worker of the future”, an army of electric zombies that will do his bidding, and proves his point as he commands Dan to kill the scirentist.

June and Mark return to the house to find her uncle dead, with Dan only able to repeat “I.. killed.. him”. McCormick is put on trial and found guilty of murder, and sentenced to… the electric chair! This has the reverse effect on Dan, as the voltage revives his superstrength, and he escapes prison and runs rampant, causing havoc and destruction as he makes his way back to Dr. Rigas and a date with destiny…

Lon is full of piss and vinegar in the early scenes, just a big, good natured lug who likes nothing more than horsing around with the Lawrence’s dog Corky. Chaney, who was a well-known dog lover in real life, has fun in the part (as, I assume, did Corky!). After getting zapped into zombiehood, ‘Dynamo Dan’ becomes just another mindless monster, showing no emotion thanks to the devious Dr. Rigas. But the role secured his spot at Universal, and Chaney became the studio’s top horror star of the 40’s, playing all the Universal Monsters at one point or another – that is, except for The Invisible Man and the Bride of Frankenstein!

Lionel Atwill steals the show as Rigas, chewing the scenery with gusto, his eyes popping from behind those crazy goggles. When Lawrence states he thinks Rigas is mad, Atwill gleefully replies, “I am! So was Archemedes, Gallileo, Newton, Pasteur, Lister, all the others who dared to dream!”. Lionel Atwill, who could give Bela Lugosi a run for his money in the mad doctor department, elevates this programmer to lofty horror heights, and woukd team with Chaney again for GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN, FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN, HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN , and HOUSE OF DRACULA.

A Universal cast is worth repeating, and here we have his grey eminence Samuel S. Hinds as kindly Prof. Lawrence, Anne Nagel as June, and Frank Albertson as the reporter. And of course, Corky, whose other films include MY FAVORITE WIFE, IT HAPPENED ON 5TH AVENUE , and CRISS CROSS . Much ado was made about the movie being filmed on the same set as Lon Chaney Sr.’s silent classic PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, with Junior ready to take the mantle of his famous father. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but young Lon did enjoy a long career in both the horror and Western fields, despite his alcoholism. MAN MADE MONSTER is definitely lesser Universal Horror, but worth checking out for Chaney’s initial horror role and the bravura stylings of mad doctor Lionel Atwill. Oh, and Corky’s pretty good, too!